King Lear ★★★★
There’s hardly a more rewarding role for a revered stage actor of advancing years than Lear, to the extent that Shakespeare’s 1606 tragedy seems to roll round even more frequently than Fiddler on the Roof. Which is to say that simply mounting King Lear with a box-office name, nowadays, is not quite enough; you need not only a performance from a star, but a star performance. This is what you get just now at the Duke of York’s, a revered playhouse which prides itself on being the 1904 birthplace of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Ian McKellen, who has presented us with a long parade of magnificent performances over the decades, is magnificent indeed as Lear. Which makes this more than just “the latest Lear.”
Director Jonathan Munby’s production, which originated at the Chichester Festival last September, seems to be set in an indeterminate post-Victorian time, somewhere between Edwardian and Vietnam. Or perhaps in an era which grows more and more recent as the action progresses. (More on this later.)
McKellen starts as an aged but altogether dandy old King, making his little jokes and charming all so long as he holds the royal scepter. His disintegration into infirmity, powerless, and madness is, as one might suspect, beyond masterful. Unlike other star players thrust into the role, Sir Ian has been acting Shakespeare since 1959. He knows it all (in the sense of knowing the texts) and has done it all, so to pick up Lear at the age of 79—or rather to return to Lear, which he has played in the past—is not a question of learning the play but re-viewing it through the eyes of an advanced septuagenarian. This he does to shattering effect. Lear raging at the storm—here in a practically impenetrable sheet of rain—is overwhelming, as is the pathos of his madness and the sunlight-through-the cloud partial emergence from same as he senses the presence of Cordelia and Kent.
Kent is of major importance here, in the hands of Sinéad Cusack. By unapologetically casting the role as a female minister, Munby brings a new color to the play—as in that final scene, where the dying king is comforted by what are now two loyal women. It’s not gender that does it, though; it’s Cusack’s commanding performance. Standing out among a generally strong company are Danny Webb (Gloucester), newcomer Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Cordelia), Luke Thompson (Edgar), Claire Price (Goneril), and Kirsty Bushell (Regan), with well-regulated comic contributions from Lloyd Hutchinson as the Fool and Michael Matus as Oswald.
The play is effectively staged, with an all-important ramp dissecting the stalls from stage to back (and thus killing a hundred or so prime orchestra seats), something I can’t recall since the Boston tryout of Pacific Overtures. This works spectacularly well—at least for those sitting downstairs—with numerous entrances and exits on the platform and, in a few spots (like the storm), important action thus placed betwixt a sea of patrons. Those lucky enough to be near the platform are especially well-favored, although you might find your shoulder tightly pinioned against the deck (as did I). The design by Paul Wills is handsome and functional, with expert lighting from Oliver Fenwick, which is all the more important (and tricky) when you need to work in offstage and in-house areas. There is also some thrilling combat from fight director Kate Waters.
Which takes us back to Munby’s indeterminate era. This works well for the better part of the evening, making the characters more immediate and more recognizable than in traditional period guise. Wireless transistor radios I don’t mind so much, nor handguns and rifles. But when you’ve got soldiers garbed in camouflage fatigues, helicopters hovering above, princesses swigging from water bottles and cinematic battle music pumping through the house, King Lear—the character and the play—starts to diminish. As does the logic of the piece; here we are in the midst of post-Vietnam era combat, and the King gets captured on the battlefield? Not in this world, where leaders wage war from comfortably guarded mansions far away.
Witness for the Prosecution ★★★★
Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, based on a 1925 short-story (“Traitor’s Hands”), appears to be the legendary mystery-writer’s finest dramatic work. A program note from her grandson reveals that at the opening night in 1953, the reticent author—uncomfortably cornered by fans—was forced to admit: “That was actually rather wonderful.”
Witness is an altogether nifty thriller, which matched its initial London success on Broadway. Albeit not so enduringly successful as Christie’s The Mousetrap, from the same producer, which was just then completing its first year on the West End and is presently in its 65th. The play has had little afterlife, most likely due to Billy Wilder’s mesmerizing 1958 motion picture version starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton. Hard to top.
Director Lucy Bailey and her producers have come up with the notion of presenting a site-specific staging of the play in The Chamber at London County Hall. This is not quite so authentic as the still-in-use Old Bailey, where the trial-within-the-play takes place, but serves as a grandly authentic hall of justice. Thus, the backdrop of a true, century-old British courtroom, complete with judge’s platform, jury box (for those who wish to pay an extra twenty pounds over the premium seat price), spectators galleries, and full trappings. The regular stalls, mind you, are perhaps the most comfortable you’ll find at a playhouse: Plush and wide leather seats complete with fold-out desks in front of you—the leather on mine was stickily marred at some point, alas, by spilled soda—and no-longer-in-use individual heating vents. So you really do feel like you are watching a criminal trial unfold.
This authentically on-site gimmick in itself would be enough to earn Witness for the Prosecution enough ayes to carry the day. What makes it considerably more than a gimmick and elevates it as a fully respectable theatrical event is the sheer professionalism of the production. Nothing is assumed; everything is carefully planned and craftily executed. The several scene changes—the play does not take place fully in a courtroom, so there’s a bit of scene-shifting—are cracklingly well staged, with “courtroom” attendants moving chaises, carpets and the defendant’s dock with alacrity. I’ll not comment on the performances, as I saw a depleted replacement cast with four understudies.
Bailey thoroughly won me over early on, when the first witness was “called.” One of the warders opened the grand doorway at the top of the chambers and yelled out for the witness. The resulting echo, rebounding and reverberating through the outer halls of London County Hall, made it clear: This Witness for the Prosecution is the real thing.
King Lear opened July 26, 2018, at the Duke of York’s Theatre (London) and runs through November 3. Tickets and information: kinglearwestend.com
Witness for the Prosecution opened October 23, 2017, at the London County Hall (London). Tickets and information: witnesscountyhall.com